In Luke’s Gospel, during the Passover meal, there is an interesting exchange between Jesus and his disciples, where Jesus seems to exhort them to sell their belongings in order to buy a sword. The text is frequently used to justify the acquisition of firearms and other weapons in arguments over the Second Amendment to the US Constitution; however, I’d like to explore a different interpretation of the verses.
Here is the text:
He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.”Luke 22:35-38 NRSV
There are several interesting things about these verses:
- The commands here seem to be the opposite of Jesus’ earlier command at the time he sent his disciples out to preach, where he told them not to take their purse or bag, but to only take their cloak.
- What does the command to buy a sword have to do with the fulfillment of scripture that Jesus will be counted among the lawless?
- If Jesus just finished telling the disciples to go and buy swords, why does he then say that two swords are sufficient?
So, I’d like to examine the text of these verses more closely, as well as “zoom out” to get additional context. I think doing so will be very beneficial to understanding Jesus’ comments as presented here by Luke. Luke is trying to tell a story with a specific purpose, so it is important to keep that in mind. And remember, these are my ideas; I’m just exploring them and am not declaring this interpretation as definitive, though I find it quite persuasive.
First, let’s “zoom out” and look at the context of these verses. Verses 7-13 have Jesus and his disciples preparing for the Passover meal. They acquired a room in a guest house and have sat down for a meal. This is the location and setting for the comments we are examining.
Next, in verses 14-20, Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper (i.e., Eucharist, Sacrament). This is important because Jesus is teaching his disciples about his upcoming sacrifice for them and the introduction of the new covenant (see Jeremiah 31:31-34) based on the imminent presence of God.
Then, in verses 21-23 Jesus mentions that one of them will betray him. So Jesus has moved from a discussion of his own sacrifice to the topic of betrayal. In verses 24-30 the disciples begin discussing who is the greatest among them. You can kind of see how the conversation is flowing, as Luke draws out conversations key to his narrative. They’ve moved from Jesus talking about his sacrifice; then betrayal; and then the disciples arguing about who will be the greatest among them, causing Jesus to bring them back to the sacrifice motif.
Next, verses 31-34 return to a topic similar in nature to betrayal: denial – specifically, Peter’s denial of Jesus. Jesus says, “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Peter then exclaims that he is willing to go anywhere Jesus goes, including death, at which point Jesus predicts that Peter will, in fact, deny that he even knew Jesus.
Now we move to the verses in question. Jesus then turns to the rest of the disciples and asks them if, when he had sent them out previously – without purse, bag, or sandals – they had lacked anything. They reply that they did not lack anything. He then tells them that they will be taking their purse and bag, and that the one thing he had previously told them to take – their cloak – he tells them they will sell for a sword. This is completely backward to what he had previously told them to do when they represented him. It is also opposite his previous description of those who make up the Kingdom of God: those who turn the other cheek, pray for their enemies, etc.; and opposite his statement that those who live by the sword will die by the sword.
So what’s going on? Keep in mind that we are still on the topic of betrayal/denial, contrasted with the example of Jesus’ sacrifice. I think this statement is Jesus’ description of how his entire set of disciples will deny him. They will reject all that the kingdom consists of and revert to the ways of this world: self-preservation, seeking after greatness, etc. So just as Peter will outright deny Jesus, the entire group of disciples will also do so by embracing the ways of this world, specifically taking up the sword, which is a means of self defense and oppression. It is not the way of Jesus or of the kingdom, which is why it fulfills scripture, counting Jesus among transgressors, for in doing so his disciples have become transgressors/lawless! In fact, the verse here quoted by Jesus is from Isaiah 53, which is one of the Suffering Servant texts from Isaiah (I highly recommend you read the chapter). It is in that chapter where we are told we are healed by Jesus’ stripes; in other words, we’re not healed by taking up the sword. This will become more clear below.
The disciples then tell Jesus that they’ve already got two swords at hand, which Jesus indicates is enough. Clearly Jesus isn’t exhorting them to violence to defend themselves against Rome or religious authorities, for two swords would never be enough in such a situation; however, two swords are enough to become transgressors against the Kingdom of God.
Jesus and his disciples then, in verses 39-46, move to the Mount of Olives where Jesus prays and the disciples fall asleep. When he finishes he awakes them and says, “Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” This statement reminds us of the Lord’s Prayer, where we are to specifically ask that we not be led “into the time of trial, but deliver us from evil.” What evil is being spoken of? I think we are about to find out.
Verses 47-53 recount Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and subsequent arrest. A “crowd” comes, Judas kisses Jesus on the cheek in order to identify him. The key part of the narrative then follows:
When those who were around him [Jesus] saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him.Luke 22:49-51 NRSV [Emphasis mine]
Here, the disciples (Luke uses the terms “those” and “them” here) revert to the use of the sword to defend Jesus. Jesus says, “No more of this,” reaches out, and heals the person struck by the sword. Here we have the dichotomy that was setup earlier, where the disciples revert to the ways of the world, striking out in violence, and Jesus shows that it is his way which brings healing. As Isaiah 53 says, speaking of the Servant, “They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence…” Earlier, the text says:
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.Isaiah 53:6 NRSV
And in verse five it says:
But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.Isaiah 53:5 NRSV
Perhaps this is why Luke alluded to the Lord’s Prayer. The “time of trial” appears to be the choice to follow the way of Jesus, or the way of this world. Love vs. violence. We pray to be delivered from evil/”the evil one”/”the lawless one”, who appears when we resort to the ways of this world, accuse others, and reject the way of the Kingdom. Instead, we should be seeking God’s Kingdom to come, and for his will to be done here on earth, as it is in heaven.
One of the interesting aspects of the text here is that Luke, in verses 54-62, places Peter’s denial of Jesus directly after the previous arrest sequence, forming what appears to be a chiasmus:
- Jesus predicts Peter’s denial
- Jesus predicts disciples’ denial
- Jesus prays for deliverance but obeys the Father
- Disciples deny Jesus by resorting to the sword
- Jesus predicts disciples’ denial
- Peter denies Jesus
I think Luke is demonstrating the futility of our way as compared to the way of Jesus. We are all transgressors and have, in our own way, denied Jesus, just as all of the disciples did that night. However, it is through Jesus that we too are healed. Just as the servant healed by Jesus’ hand had come with the crowd, bearing clubs and swords, only to be healed by Jesus, we too may find ourselves healed by Jesus in the midst of our transgressions, learning that truly we must not live by the sword or seek after wealth (purse), but rather by radical love.
Cody, thank you for sharing. That’s an interesting perspective on a passage which has confused me for a while.
I ultimately think that this argument for pacifism is much more effective among other Christians than among Latter-day Sainst (meaning those who have only the Bible and treat the Old Testament as outdated).
The Book of Mormon just has too many passages supporting righteous wars (especially with Morton’s hero, Capt. Moroni). The people of Ammon who buried their swords are treated as an exception rather than the rule (keeping oaths was VERY important in those days) and their young sons’ willingness to fight on their behalf seems to make them the book’s biggest heroes in modern LDS culture.
You could say that the Book of Mormon is clearing up confusion left by an imperfect Bible. Or that it is a product of Joseph Smith’s time when the young American nation was very proud of the bravery of its warriors in the Revolution and War of 1812. Either way, it has certainly left us with a different perspective on violence than Bible-only Christians.
That was interesting.
Great stuff, Cody.
Wesley, you may enjoy this interview with David Pulsipher, whose chose reading of violence in the Book of Mormon argues that it’s teachings on violence are not tray dissimilar – that while perhaps justifiable, is always the lesser path to the higher path of nonviolence. After all, the story of the Nephites is inn many ways that those who live by the sword die by the sword. And we are told to avoid the fate of the Nephites, not follow their example.
Leonard, I listen to that podcast – thank you for sharing!
Professor Pulsipher definitely brought up some interesting perspectives, but to me, the idea that the Book of Mormon generally supports pacifism still strains credulity. There are just too many examples of prophets teaching and living the just war doctrine. And there are also many moving passages about how much better it is to have peace than war – but there’s always that underlying willingness to fight, and a belief that not every problem can be solved nonviolently. The two biggest examples of pacifism that he brings up – Ammon’s expedition and later the People of Ammon – aren’t such perfect fits either, since Ammon does defend the King’s flocks at the Waters of Sebus, and his people, after losing so many lives to their brethren, flee to the Nephite lands and pay tribute for protection from the Nephite armies.
I just don’t put a lot of stock into people who think they’ve found the true meaning of a text that remains hidden to those of lesser their own cleverness of faithfulness. This obviously applies to attempts to predict the end of the world or find support for one’s politics in a millennia-old text that was really addressed to someone else. But I also think it applies here. Nephi taught us to delight in plainness, and the just war motif seems very plain. It’s also plain that the righteous men in that book engage in war only reluctantly.
In fine, I don’t think you can shoehorn traditional Christian pacifism into the Book of Mormon. I’ve known people to reject the Book of Mormon because it contradicts their understanding of biblical passages like the ones Cody draws from, though my own opinion is that the Book of Mormon contradicts the Bible no more than the Bible contradicts itself. But the claim the Book of Mormon has a hidden meaning opposite to its plain meaning is, to me, too much of a stretch.
Wesley, I don’t quite follow you. I have never read the Book of Mormon and considered its depiction of war to be glorious or anything other than a necessary evil, to be engaged in only after careful consideration and when no other alternative remains.
I’m also confused by the term “traditional Christian pacifism”. Only a relatively small portion of Christian denominations have been officially pacifist. It’s unclear based on history what early Christians thought of war as a means of self-defense. Early Christians eschewed military service primarily out of opposition to religious aspects of Roman military culture. But Paul does use war imagery in Ephesians to great effect, associating armor and armaments with godly things. The truth is, though, that while the New Testament contains a lot of teaching on how people should treat each other and personal violence, there’s almost nothing about the propriety of military engagements between nations. And there’s no reason to expect there to be any, since the events recounted in the New Testament took place at a time when believers had no political power. For the same reason, there’s not much on concepts like democracy, public welfare, or other matters significant to nations rather than individuals.
“Jesus seems to exhort them to sell their belongings in order to buy a sword”
Seems pretty clear to me. What is less clear is the exact purpose or motivation.
Additionally, it would be wresting scripture to suppose that Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in that particular situation is a command for all people everywhere at all times.